A group of patients has gathered outside my office, looking as if they are condemned inmates heading to the gallows. I image their expression are due to feelings of anxiety about the group process that is about to begin.
Paige, the only woman in my group, pulls up the end of the procession, plopping herself down in the nearest chair. Still chilled from the 40-degree weather, I notice her multicolored sundress: sleeveless, loose-fitting, and draping to her ankles.
"Let's get started," I say, clapping my hands and attempting to help them shake off their somber expressions. "Let's get out our notebooks," I begin, "and go over... " Stopping mid-sentence, I am distracted as Paige, now bending over to retrieve her notebook, has "inadvertently" exposed her bare breasts. Six men (all heterosexuals) sit with their mouths open, looking at me for some sort of cue.
The shock felt by the victims is the high for the exhibitionist; it is where she feels power and control. This is a passive-aggressive behavior that, for women, is often couched in a naive innocence of intention. They are exempt from responsibility because of the cultural denial that the woman would ever intentionally be so provocative. One out of four girls will be sexually assaulted by the age of eighteen. For boys, it is one out of six. We have to ask: Where does all of that sexual shame and anger get channeled? The answer is that it gets channeled into sexual compulsive behavior. Paige's behavior was intentional.
As with many of the acting-out behaviors we have discussed, the exhibitionist rarely if ever wants to be sexual. The power for her is in controlling her victim.
When Paige exposes herself, she is seeking to reverse her childhood trauma, and banish fear and shame by becoming her perpetrator. The sexual pleasure of the perversion masks her underlying shame.
It is late afternoon, and Paige notices Mr. Bentley, who sits, as he always does, on a lawn chair on his front porch. Mrs. Bentley, who died three months ago after a heart attack, left emptiness in the hearts of her family members. She was the quintessential grandmother.
Paige, like all of the neighbors, had seen a fast decline in Mr. Bentley's health. To Paige, he seemed to have gone off the deep end. Two days ago, while Paige was sitting in her favorite chair across from Mr. Bentley, he had allowed his penis to be exposed in the loose-fitting shorts. At first, Paige was curious and confused, and then she was disgusted. Paige, too embarrassed to tell anyone, let the incident go, excusing it as just an accident.
A few days later, Paige's mother made the suggestion that, while she and Paige's father were away dropping off her brother at college, Paige could stay with Mr. Bentley. She thought it would be the perfect situation because Paige, too young to be left alone, could keep Mr. Bentley company. Paige, too afraid to tell her mother what had happened, acquiesced.
Mr. Bentley's sexual behaviors escalated immediately. Leaving the bathroom door open while he urinated, wearing the same loose shorts, and standing naked in front of Paige while she pretended to be asleep, Mr. Bentley turned Pagige's stay into a horror show.
"What are you feeling, Paige?" I ask as tears stream down her face.
Her male peers, who are giving her feedback, have hit a nerve.
"I don't know; I guess sad."
"You know, Paige, I feel sad when I see you do that to yourself," says Max, one of her fellow group members.
"Over the past few days, I have started to get to know you, and I think you are a valuable person. I just don't think I know you yet."
Paige bows her head in an attempt to hide her face.
"I never had anybody say these things to me," she says, tears still streaming. "I feel like such an asshole."
"Paige," I say with focus, "you are not an asshole. You are just a person who was traumatized, trying to take back your power the only way you know how. Now you have the opportunity to learn a new way, a healthy way to heal your wounds and express your sexuality."